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Over the weekend, I had watched a much anticipated movie from Marvel Studios. As the initial saga ended with Endgame from 2019, the new one was due to start with “Eternals”. This movie definitely validates the opinion of Martin Scorsese when he mentioned that Marvel Cinematic Universe isn’t cinema. It isn’t about how many errors are committed in film making as such. Eternals is most certainly a well-made movie. It has great visuals and a good conflict the characters face. But, such quality notwithstanding, the movie is still a letdown if one were to analyse in terms of “cinema” as Scorsese put it.
The central conflict of the film is quite clearly established. The Eternals serve the Celestials, a group of extra terrestrial beings that wield the power of controlling the universe. The Celestials seem to be managerial in their function with the Eternals as their foot soldiers to do their bidding. As the Celestials are responsible for creating new life across the universe, they’re in some ways primordial. The similarities to Primordial gods of Greek mythology is striking. Much like the sequence of gods from Primordial gods to the ascension of the Olympians, leapfrogging over the Titans, the Celestials birth the Eternals and other Celestials themselves. Instead of warring over each other, the Celestials & Eternals seem to co-exist. However, there is a hierarchy. Unlike the Titans & the Olympians, which is a strange coincidence from the movie. The original backstory of the Eternals is that they’re extra terrestrial beings from a planet by name Olympia. This is in place of the Greek story of Mount Olympus where the Olympian gods derive their name from.
The conflict the Eternals face is similar to what Arjuna faces on the Battlefield of Kurukshetra. The conflict Arjuna faces is the fact that he is on the side of the Pandavas, while his teacher, Dronacharya, is on the side of the Kauravas. As a student, he cannot get himself to harm his teacher. But as a warrior, his allegiance was with the Pandavas and he could not betray them either. The context Krishna offers is that on a battlefield, the teacher would like to be treated as a foe with an equal opportunity. The rage or wrath Arjuna shows on anyone must be the same. The same would be expected of Dronacharya fighting all his students along with Arjuna. Yet, the conflict is clear. To everyone else, Dronacharya was a teacher. To Arjuna, he was more than just a teacher. To Dronacharya, Arjuna was more than just a favourite student. Arjuna had found a teacher who could hone him & make him the best archer there ever was. To Dronacharya, he found a purpose in life to be able to teach such a gifted student. It is that conflict of allegiance & loyalty which is central to every significant event of human life.
When John Adams was requested by the “Red Coats”, the colloquial moniker for the British Army, to plead their case in court after the Boston Massacre where the Army killed American citizens, he accepted the request, much to the chagrin of all the revolutionary Patriots. His cousin Samuel Adams was a member of the Patriots, who expressed quite vociferously his disparagement at this development. When asked whose side John Adams was on, he indicates he’s on the side of Law and Order; that he set his allegiance to legal process & due diligence over mob rule & social justice. To John Adams, his resolution of the conflict was clear. If the Red Coats were truly guilty, they should be tried by British Law & correspondingly punished. His nationality and any allegiance to any political movement was ruled out.
The problem with the movie Eternals is that the conflict is not exposed with any such nuances. It’s a binary allegiance, smacking of rising against a powerful overlord. The Eternals side with the downtrodden & destitute race of humanity because if they didn’t, no one else would save them from the fate the Celestials have planned for them. Of course, since the group of Eternals are individuals, there’s an intra-group conflict where they discuss which side they choose. What follows is straightforward in-fighting leading to the plan of the Celestials being foiled. However, that ignores a lot of nuances that are dropped throughout the movie in building a conflict. What is set as an amazing example of the pitfalls of plan, command & control approach favouring the “Intelligent Creator” narrative of Gods, isn’t even explored. The movie follows the highly simplistic syllogism of equating powerful beings as corrupted, and since Celestials are powerful, someone has to take a stand against them. The methods of the Celestials of creating new life are arcane, and have to be changed. It seems as if Marvel wished to skirt the lines of good & bad as shades of grey where the group arrives at deciding their allegiance after much conflict. Unfortunately for the Eternals, there is a precedent of such a good movie within the MCU itself; Captain America – Civil War.
The reason why Tony Stark sides with the Sokovia Accords and why Steve Rogers takes the opposing stance is laid out quite clearly, in line with how their characters developed over several movies. Given the MCU generally prefers a slow-burn approach over multiple movies, it’s strange to see them kicking off a new phase with this approach. The first movies of the MCU had clear lines drawn between good & bad to set off the character development arcs over multiple movies to come. Yet, the movie still seems slow-paced despite taking the fast lane. That has to be chalked up to a really underdone screenplay. The Celestials need planets with sentient life to create more celestials to create more life and the cycle goes on. The assumption is that intelligent life will always be the physically weaker species & has to be protected from predators. If one were to study human development & how our brains developed, it’s because of such challenges of having to face other species that are physically stronger than humans. The first failing of the Celestials design comes up here. To ensure that the intelligent life isn’t under threat from Predators, they set up a race of creatures designed to be the apex predators called the Deviants. The Deviants then, by virtue of being predators, prey on the intelligent life. The Celestial Arishem chalks this up to a flaw in design, when in fact the design was to be the most predatory creature. Seeing this as an overcorrection of a problem, he decides the undercorrection would be a race of beings that don’t evolve from day one till the end of time. Instead of being predators, they would be endowed with powers to defend humans against the deviants.
However, since the intelligent life has to gain full sentience, restraint is practised to not interfere excessively. The Eternals are to never indulge with humans and merely protect them from the deviants. Yet, the undercorrection turns out to be a little underdone. The Eternals are gifted the ability to observe the world so that the Celestials can have a database of how the deviants have evolved over the years. Yet, the great designer with all his plans, seems to have missed out that an ability to observe means that Eternals have experiences and thereby, are prone to feelings of attachment to the work they do in assisting and living among the species they protect. Somehow, the wise Celestials haven’t figured this problem out for 7000 years. It is almost as if they’re indifferent & seek to use their power to solve problems for when they become too big to let go. The deeper conflict of yet another flawed design by the Gods & why anyone must be loyal to such a God is not explored. The conflict of allegiance lay with the intelligent race, as they’d die a pointless death if the Celestial wished so. They either die birthing another Celestial, or at the hands of an angered Celestial. Would someone die with putting in all effort, or live a pointless life anyway? What if one of the celestials turned out to be like Prometheus, the greek god who loved humans?
Till the end, the Celestials remain the all-powerful beings that decide the fate of life. Never once is their design questioned. It’s almost as if the storyteller is indifferent to a deeper conflict arising out of planned & designed sentience and randomly occurring sentience. Such stories fail to be compelling, unless their visuals are remarkable. That is because if the protagonist can never defeat the antagonist & stand up to the reign of tyranny, there is no room for hope. And in every story, hope for a better future drives the protagonist. The hunger for more and more power drives the antagonist. What if the antagonist is already an all-powerful being? There is very little to add there.
It is in the clear conviction of the Eternals to stand against the Celestials where the movie begins to thin down. Ultimately, it all comes to mercy & chance. Plead to a higher power in repentance to be saved. With all powerful beings, is it not possible to tell great stories? Of course it is. The Greeks did it quite a long time ago. For all the batesian imitation that the Eternals storyline does, it failed to pick up the important part – compelling storytelling. That’s what made this yet another well-made movie I didn’t quite like.